Without (for some reason) the critical kudos of punk, sans the glamour of America’s mythic backdrop, pre the MTV revolution, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a hard school. Maybe that’s why it bred survivors.
Saxon have been recording since 1979 and Battering Ram is their twenty-first studio album. They’d be fine candidates to cut the first record after the zombie apocalypse – and it would be a perfect soundtrack, too.
For this they deserve total respect. Yes there is humour inherent in them, as there is in the genre, and they have had their moments of indignity: the early tour van still emblazoned with the not-quite-deleted logo of its previous owner ‘Sid Cummins – Tripe Dealer’; the legend of Biff Byford’s ‘singing teeth’; the reality TV makeover from Harvey Goldsmith and so on.
There have been legal scraps over the band name (it’s a source of sadness that Steve ‘Dobby’ Dawson and Graham Oliver parted on such bad terms) and Byford has at times cut a curmudgeonly figure. But through this they have endured; their vision almost always clear. Battering Ram is, triumphantly and as ever, more of the same.
It is rooted in Saxon’s hard-won territory: produced by the no-nonsense Andy Sneap; recorded in the Derbyshire countryside – “we wanted to keep focussed on a style,” says Byford.
The NWOBHM is seeded deep within them: the cover of Battering Ram features a wonderfully humanoid ram’s skull underneath a dark portcullis; the spoken-word entry to the terrific The Devil’s Footprint recounts the tale of strange hoofmarks found in snow on fields and rooftops across the villages of Devon in 1855; the album closes with Kingdom Of The Cross, a poem spoken by David Bower with Byford offering a sonorous vocal for the chorus – ‘What is this place across the fields where poppies stretch and sway?’…
The record is kept taut with some other NWOBHM staples too, Destroyer, Hard And Fast, Stand Your Ground, the usual metal exhortations applied to rivet-hard riffage.
Byford’s voice is deeper now and less supple than the young lad that yelped his way through Wheels Of Steel and Dallas 1pm, but he understands implicitly how to deliver this material with power and conviction. Sneap gives the guitars of Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt just enough of a contemporary edge. In all though, Saxon are from a fine tradition and extend it further here.